Second only to Carolyn Wells is Amelia Reynolds Long in the race for the title Queen of the Wacky Detective Novel. Long lived her entire life in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where she began her writing career with science fiction. Several of her early stories are considered classics (though whether they also classify as “alternative classics” I cannot tell you as I have read none of them). She tired of science fiction and weird fiction in the late 1930s and moved onto detective fiction in 1939 when she penned The Shakespeare Murders which feature themed murders related to the works of the Bard. Literary murderers were to be a favorite topic of Long’s and she would revisit them in Murder by Scripture (1942) in which the Bible is used as an inspiration for killing and Death Looks Down (1944) with its killer using Poe as a murderous muse. She wrote under her own name and two other pseudonyms: Patrick Laing and Adrian Reynolds. As Reynolds she wrote three books featuring Professor Dennis Barrie, an American literature college professor, who quite by accident becomes an amateur detective. The Leprechaun Murders (1950) is his second appearance. It is a blend of the puzzle whodunits Agatha Christie wrote which Long loved and her own unique brand of the fantastic and the bizarre.
In the opening pages Professor Dennis Barrie has a chance encounter in a bar with Owen Maloney who latches onto him and drunkenly introduces his new friend Mr. Hannigan, an Irish gent with a suspicious resemblance to the cigar chomping fairy godfather character in the Barnaby comic strip. He also has a habit of being invisible just like Harvey, the pooka. Barrie wants to escape from Maloney’s company when Maloney explains that Mr. Hannigan is a leprechaun and he has made a bargain with the leprechaun. He will pay him $5000 in order for a wish to come true. And that wish is to make his niece Eileen happy by making her husband disappear. Maloney having exhausted himself (and the reader) with an overload of exposition soon passes out (or is that just the alcohol?). The bartender is ready to throw him out but Barrie volunteers to be a Good Samaritan and drive Maloney home after learning he lives relatively nearby. When he arrives at Maloney’s home he discovers an impromptu party with several neighbors and town locals in attendance. We meet almost the entire cast of characters at this party scene. They include:
Eileen Maloney – Owen’s niece and her husband the unliked, unloved Bert Henderson
Michael Maloney – Eileen’s twin brother, a budding poet Owen calls “the new Thomas More”
Eric Kingsley – a musician in love with Eileen
Sheriff Warner – an ex-private eye from San Francisco now in charge of the law in this Pennsylvania town
Phillip Benson (“The Great Bensoni”) – an itinerant ventriloquist on a theatrical circuit currently living in the boarding house next door who provides a bit of entertainment for the party-goers
Mabel Marple – the busybody landlady of the boarding house where Kingsley and Benson live (Yes, they call her Miss Marple throughout the book. Some nerve that Amelia has, eh?)
The rainy weather continues to worsen and Barrie is invited to stay and spend the night (such hospitable strangers). He accepts the offer. During the night he is disturbed by some activity in the yard. He wakes and from his window watches a strange hunched over figure running across the lawn and into a shed in the backyard of the Maloney property. He continues to watch as the figure climbs through an open window in the shed, turns back to close the window and reveals its face — it looks exactly like the ventriloquist’s dummy. The following morning Miss Marple stumbles across a dead body just outside the shed and goes next door to get help from the Maloney. Barrie and several others come out but the body is gone though there are definite traces of a corpse having been there. When it is also learned that Bert Henderson is missing the police are contacted and a search is instituted for Bert or perhaps his dead body. Prof. Barrie is reluctant to reveal what he saw the previous night. For who would ever believe him if he offered his idea that 1. a leprechaun has made a drunk’s wish come true and 2. that a ventriloquist’s dummy came to life.
|The author in 1931|
As is usual with Long we get an entire trunkful of detective novel tropes. The story is a mish mash of gimmicks and plot devices she must have picked up in her extensive reading of old mystery fiction. She borrows heavily from the Carolyn Wells bag of tricks with a secret passage (part of the Underground Railway of the Civil War era no less) that no one seems to be aware of that amazingly connects all the cellars of the homes in the neighborhood. Henderson turns out to have a dirty secret in his past that led to his murder – a nod I’m sure to Long’s hero Agatha Christie. And — conscious borrowing or not — one of the most outrageous parts of the book is a direct descendant of an eerie short story by John Keir Cross now virtually a cliche in mystery and horror fiction. Yet though this book may seem a compendium of other writers’ trademarks Long still manages to make this one a real page turner. I had to keep going to see how much she could tip the scales in terms of the preposterous. She does an impressive job, my friends.
Like a true alternative classic mystery writer Amelia Reynolds Long has a unique way with metaphoric language. Chapter 18, the most Gothic section of this particular book, offers the best of Amelia’s descriptive talent.
The dark hall in which they stood was like the inside of a pocket.
He fumbled about on the wall just inside the door for a moment, then located the light switch. As he pressed it, a small orangish bulb set close against the ceiling flashed on. Before its mellow glow, the darkness fled down the hall and scuttled up the staircase. […] he felt the roots of his hair suddenly prickle, while the skin at the back of his neck seemed to be trying to climb up to join his scalp. From somewhere behind him, a huge snake hissed!
There is no monstrous serpent in the house, of course. It turns out that Sheriff Warner was only whispering “Professor!” to get Barrie’s attention and the college man’s fearful imagination took over.
While some of Long’s books turn up in cheap paperback editions and relatively affordable used copies of UK editions, The Leprechaun Murders received only a single printing in hardcover in the US. Sorry to say that it is one of the most difficult of her titles to find. I located only two copies being sold on-line, both of them with the DJ shown above. One is $26, the other is $50. Don’t all rush at once! If you live in Chicago you can always check out the copy I found at the library. Believe it or not it’s been returned to the shelves of the main branch eagerly awaiting new readers. Luckily it happens to be in excellent condition or else it would’ve suffered the same fate as Long’s other four books that used to be on the shelves.
A complete bibliography of Long’s mystery novels is available at her tribute website. While there you can also read one of her rare interviews conducted by fantasy and horror writer and fellow book collector Chet Williamson shortly before Long’s death in 1978.